Wednesday, March 28, 2007

More info on Blender puppet plug in…

Andrew, the author of the PuppetVision blog wrote me to explain in further detail about the Blender puppet plug in he’s helping to develop called Panda Puppet. He said I could share his thoughts here….

Thanks for taking notice of my digital puppetry project! I had actually been
looking at a bunch of the tutorials on your site earlier today so it was neat
to see that.

Just to clarify though, Panda Puppet isn’t really motion capture. Although it
could certainly work with motion capture and it is possible to have direct
control over over a character’s movement, Blender’s real-time engine is kind of
lousy so the easiest way to control a character is to assign hand-keyed Blender
“Actions” (short animated movements like a hand gesture…I assume Maya has
something similar) to different controls. A large library of actions can be
developed and then what a puppeteer is really doing is mixing different actions
together on the fly to create a performance.

The effectiveness of this type of system is really dependent on having a
skilled animator setting up and rigging the character (I am trying to recruit
some experienced Blender animators to help out with the project). The
rudimentary-looking tests right now are more of a testament to my very limited
character animation skills than any real limitations with this technique.

So there you have it- hopefully that helps fill in the blanks for everybody. I think it sounds like a pretty cool system in theory.

Circuit City Stinks

I’ll never shop there again. This is such a low class, corporate baron move that it borders on the immoral. I realize that this sort of thing goes on in an unspoken way all the time in corporate America- but that they’re being so brazen about it shows a callousness that defies description.

Circuit City to cut more than 3,500 jobs

NEW YORK - A new plan for layoffs at Circuit City is openly targeting better-paid workers, risking a public backlash by implying that its wages are as subject to discounts as its flat-screen TVs.

The electronics retailer, facing larger competitors and falling sales, said Wednesday that it would lay off about 3,400 store workers — immediately — and replace them with lower-paid new hires as soon as possible.

That’s right. You’re getting your head handed to you in the business arena so the first place you look to save money is the little guys who work for you. Because you know shaving off $2 per hour for 3500 people who need every dollar they can get is really gonna be a huge advantage for you. Let’s see, if those 3500 people are fulltime employees, that means they work 40 hours a week. So that’s a saving of $80 per week per laid off employee. That comes out to about $4,100 per year per laid off employee. Multiply that by 3500 and you get a yearly payroll savings of about $14.5 million. How much does the CEO of Circuit City make each year? Funny you should ask. If you look on page 13 of the May 2006 Proxy Statement for Circuit City you’ll find that CEO Philip Schnoover had a 2006 compensation package that equalled roughly $4.85 million. The poor dear, he can’t afford to buy his own private jet with such a paltry wage. All the other CEO’s are laughing at him, I’m sure. And if you added up all the 2006 stock options for the executives who lead this foundering ship it comes to a tidy little $17.5 million- which is more than they’ll save by taking away the livelihood of 3500 people who were most likely their most loyal employees (It stands to reason in the world of retail that if the folks have a higher wage then these are the people who have stuck around the longest and been your go-to people). Logic dictates they should actually show leadership and refuse those lucrative stock rewards since they’re doing such a crappy job running the company. Nope. It’s easier to just fire 3500 people making $7.50 per hour and replacing them with people making $5.15 per hour because you know, it’s the floor people’s fault Circuit City is getting it’s butt kicked.


I realize that I’m tipping at windmills here, but if enough people actually called dirty dealing what it is instead of passively rolling over and saying “Well, that’s the way it is in business” then maybe things would be different. I’ll do my part here and now. If enough of us Quixotic types tip at these windmills maybe one day they’ll get the idea. I’ll be in the market for TV’s and appliances again someday. I think you know which store won’t be getting my money.
Read the full, pathetic story here.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Blender + realtime puppetry = interesting

I found this post over on the PuppetVision blog to be very intriguing. He’s developing an open source real time puppetry input device that will work with the free CG content program Blender. Early tests seem pretty rudimentary and rough right now, but I’m willing to bet it’ll be a very interesting new toy when it’s done. At the very least it’s a step forward in creating a kitchen-table-top version of the kind of technology that larger budgeted filmmakers have had access to for a while. He says you can use all manner of interfaces to drive the thing- even a Wii controller. Once completed it promises to open some interesting doors for independent non-camera filmmakers. And I am sure it will generate a new wave of conversations in the “animation” world.

I’ve seen some work done by the Henson folks with their realtime puppetry input devices on rendered CG before. Blur Studio did a pilot for Fox a few years back, forget the name of the thing. Something about a space alien named Fred or somesuch. Needless to say it wasn’t quite up there with hand keyed facial animation. In fact it really wasn’t even close. But for realtime… not bad. But remapping systems of facial capture might suffocate this realtime puppetry baby in the cradle. Depends if a good and affordable facial capture/remapping system can be developed. Right now any capture systems are heavy on the hardware/software side. I wonder when you’ll see $500 home motion capture systems? With the Youtube-ization of the world I’d say maybe 5 years? I’m sure there will always be those who prefer the hands on (hands in?) approach to traditional puppetry. But full body puppetry has been a mainstay of the art form for a long, long time. The lines between what we call mo-cap or perf-cap and puppetry are getting blurrier. In the end it’s all about taking some motion in realtime and remembering it and putting it into some kind of rendered avatar. The rest is semantics and hype.
Right now anything that has a processed or ‘rendered’ image seems to be lumped into the animation categorization. Any advanced machinima efforts will probably face similar ghetto-ization. Too bad for them- they’ll get stuck at the kiddie card table at the family reunion just like us animators. heh. Still, for the shoestring budget indy “non-realist’ filmmaker this could be a revolutionary new toy. Puppetry is a fantastic art form and craft. By the strictest of interpretations (seemingly not much of a concern to most) it’s not ‘animation’, though. Digitally rendering the performance capture of a digital puppet does get the idea engine running, though. I dig puppetry- it’s a lot of fun. I still like sock puppets, though. for me the rougher the puppet the more entertaining it seems to be. I don’t know why- I think it’s the absurdity of it all that makes me laugh.

Anyhow…. interesting times indeed.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Interesting reading items this week…

From CinemaTech… Google’s CEO: Old and New Media Have Different Views on Content’s Value
Google’s decided to not worry about that whole “Do no evil” motto. Significantly they seem to have adopted a cold corporatist ideal about the value of media content. Namely, it’s only valuable if lots of people go to see it. So popularity = value. I dunno, but when it comes to art & media that seems like the crassest of all possible evaluations. No room for the important works that speak truth to the human condition. Not unless it can get millions of views and Google can monetize it with AdSense. Pretty pathetic if you ask me.

John K Talks Up the Sponsored Ad Approach
He makes a very valid point. People today skip ads like the plague. The common sense solution is to make the ads entertaining and fun to watch. Right now we only have one media event where this is a stated goal and people wait in anticipation to see how they’ll be entertained next with the ads- the Super Bowl. The problem is the ads are only fresh for a little while until they are run into the ground 6 months later. An episodic entertainment concept with an advertising undercurrent seems to me it might work. Not sure the current Raketu stuff K’s been doing is the answer (it’s OK for what it is, I guess. John K’s stuff always leaves me cold and the actual execution on this feels really rough and cheap), but I think the concept holds water.

J.J. Sedelmaier waxes eloquent about the wonderful variety and texture of animation.
His fullisades against the motion and design hegemony of the current CG craze echoes some of my own thoughts exactly. His final stance is fairly optimistic. The best thing to happen to animation diversity is to be squeezed by a giant 880lb style gorilla. I’d have to agree. The crushing dullness and boredom of the current CG style of animation has pushed me to try and find something else to charge my creative batteries- to find a different variety and style that has more of that human touch to it.

O-Meon tells a crazy tale about the world of Disney’s TuneStudio’s Tinkerbell film.
I’m so far waiting to turn in my score card on my take on Lasseter’s running of Disney’s creative efforts but on this issue it seems like he’s on the right track.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

London Times article on Sylvain Chomet’s newest film

Read this nice write up. It holds some interesting perspectives about living life under the radar of the big budget Hollywood animated film formula. Oscar nominated animation director Sylvain Chomet is developing an old unproduced Jacques Tati script (titled The Illusionist) into an animated feature for about $19-20mil USD. That’s not bad money for a Euro production. His latest film, Triplettes of Belleville was made for somewhere around $10-12mil USD. Having seen how much production budget in big Hollywood projects gets literally wasted I think that it’s quite possible for a director driven film to be very successfully made for $20mil. And by “successfully made” I mean “you won’t be tempted to gouge your eyeballs out using your Slurpee straw/scooper”. I think this $20mil mark is actually a kind of ’sweet spot’ for indy animated features. It’s almost right in line with the average production budget for a live action Hollywood film. Being thus far under the insane-o-sphere $100mil budget means the money comes with a lot fewer strings attached- and a good deal less “executive meddling”. Now obviously you’re not gonna wow the world with some new gew-gaw technology, but you do have a better than average chance of being left alone long enough to actually tell a real story. This as opposed to selling Happy Meals and linens. Of course to actually get that $20mil you need to prove that you can deliver the goods for significantly less a time or two, so this is no quick road to glory.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Max the Hare Cycle from 1935

Not sure if everybody here has Michael Sporn’s Splog on their daily RSS feed (if you don’t then well shame on you!), but juuuust in case you haven’t seen it yet check out the drawings he’s posted of the animation hop/run/strut cycle of Max the Hare. This was done in 1935.

That’s 72 years ago people.


Here’s a Quicktime version I put together from the drawings. Sadly I don’t have the short film here to reference. This first QT is a simple 12fps (shot on 2’s). Feels a little floaty-ish to me so I suspect that maybe there’s some 1’s intended here. But maybe not.

I don’t have the timing charts so I don’t know exactly how the animator wanted it to play out. There are 8 drawings to the stride cycle (heel contact to heel contact) so if it was on straight 2’s it would come out to a 16 beat- which is really kinda slow (thus the pokey feeling on 2’s). If you played it on 1’s you’d get an 8 beat, which is about the fastest action beat you’re gonna find in a golden age cartoon. So my guess is it’s a straight 12 beat cycle with some drawings on 1’s to add some pop. Here was my guess after messing around a bit in a pencil shooter. This is a 12 beat cycle (each stride takes half a second) with mixed 1’s and 2’s…

That one feels like it’s got the sass that I can see in the drawings. It’s fun to dig in and guess around how the animator wanted this to time out. It’s like trying to get in their head 70 years later. I love doing this stuff.

Michael notes…

It’s interesting that he’s off the ground for 5 out of every 12 drawings. It helps create a delicate buoyancy overall. This is feasibly impossible, but it makes the run richer.

For all our modern wizardry this is the kind of thing that a lot of us CG animators seem to struggle in capturing well- the playfulness of cartoon physics. I have my theories as to why, but I’m gonna solidify them before I say anything more. But rest assured- I will say more. Eventually.

Bradford Animation Festival Panel Talks

Want to listen to some fun animation type discussion while you work? Check out the podcasts of the panel discussions from the Bradford Animation Festival website. The panels discuss various animated things and feature animation directors Marc Craste (he of Pica Towers and JoJo and the Stars fame) and Peter Lord (he of Aardman fame), as well as others. Good stuff, a fun listen.

Thanks to Richard Drumm for the link/tip!